Who was Canada's best prime minister?
This is often debated among Americans about American presidents. It comes up less often for Canadian PMs. No one cares much about Canadian prime ministers. In one sense this is wrong, because Canadian prime ministers actually have more real power than US presidents. But it somehow seems easier to cite presidents who are admirable. Canadian prime ministers always seem, at best, just another politician.
I think this is partly because presidents serve symbolically as head of state, national symbols, partly an artifact of the US term limits. As Enoch Powell once observed, under the Westminster system, every political career ends in failure. Leaders usually stay on until voted out of office—or until they know they are going to be voted out if they again face the polls: until popular opinion turns against them. And so this is how they are remembered. With US term limits, it is common for a leader to retire while still popular, and this is how he is remembered.
When deciding on the best prime ministers, or presidents, there is a tendency too to give highest marks to ones who made a lot of changes while in office: who left a legacy. They are, naturally enough, the most remembered. America would be a very different place today had Lincoln or FDR not been in office.
I think this is a dangerously bad idea, and a bad influence. In principle, any change has only a 50-50 chance of being for the better. So we ought not to give precedence simply to change. Encouraging this imagined need to leave a legacy can prompt leaders to do dumb and dangerous things.
I think, for example, of Brian Mulroney's Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. He came close to busting the country, just to be a bigger man than Trudeau. Or Pierre Trudeau's inane, pretentious, and counterproductive world peace tour at the end of his final mandate.
With all that in mind, I think Canada's best prime minister to date is actually relatively unassuming Stephen Harper. He held a steady course, in which all the regions and constituencies were kept generally content. Maybe Wilfrid Laurier next. Then Louis St. Laurent. The country prospered, and they didn't unnecessarily rock the boat.
Other prime ministers, those that did, tend to my mind to have usually left sour tastes when they departed. Paul Martin was a great finance minister, but as prime minister, he seemed to me unprincipled and duplicitous. Jean Chretien was lovable in a number of cabinet posts, but as prime minister, he seemed dangerously ruthless. One felt he was prepared to let the Liberal Party and parliamentary traditions burn to the ground if necessary to keep his own power. He badly fumbled the ball on the 1995 Quebec Referendum, and again the country nearly broke up. Brian Mulroney, although he deserves credit for NAFTA, was unforgivably reckless, as noted with Canada's future for the sake of his supposed legacy. Joe Clark's signal accomplishment was quickly getting himself voted out of office. Pierre Trudeau deserves credit for his work on national unity, and he was an inspiring presence, but he showed a frightening authoritarian streak with Les Ordres, his romance with Castro, and his Hate Crimes legislation. We are still paying for that legacy. Lester Pearson deserves credit for Medicare, which for all its faults few Canadians would want to do without. But at the time, a difficult time for Canada, he seemed maddeningly weak. Always the diplomat, one felt that, had half the country gone Neo-Nazi, and the other half become serial rapists, he would have gone along with it all without saying anything for the sake of superficial concord. Diefenbaker was a lot of fun to have around, and deserves a little credit for the Canadian Bill of Rights, but shambolic in power. Mackenzie King was remarkable mostly for hanging on to power so long. F.R. Scott claimed his motto was “never do by halves what you can do by quarters.” That is not by itself a bad thing, but it is not really true. It is more that this is the impression he made: uninspiring, While doing lots of things, a transformation comparable to that by FDR in the US, by stealth.
|Louis St. Laurent|
R.B. Bennett might have amounted to something, but had the misfortune to be in power during the worst early years of the Great Depression. Robert Borden seems a suit, a cipher, and tone deaf on Quebec. And so on back to Sir John A, who was above all else a political deal maker. A useful skill, but not an inspiring or really very admirable one.
Now to apply the same principles to American presidents. Because I can't resist. Most admirable, I think, has to be George Washington. He could have become America's king. He could have been a Cromwell, dictator for life. It was virtually historically unprecedented at the time—people had to think back to the Roman Republic and Cincinnatus—that he did not try for greater power than suggested in the Constitution, and then insisted on retiring from office after two terms. He set a model everyone else felt obliged to follow; at least until FDR.
Speaking of which, by this same measure, FDR was an especially bad president. So are some others generally heralded as among the best: Woodrow Wilson, Andrew Jackson. Lincoln's bloody tumult and suspension of liberties was in itself not at all good, but perhaps a morally necessary thing. That argument hinges on whether you can see slavery being abolished peacefully in the US, as it indeed was throughout the British Empire.
After Washington, Jefferson deserves a lot of credit. He represented the radical faction from the Revolution coming to power. If Washington might have been a Cromwell, Jefferson might have been a Robespierre. Instead, he acted with admirable restraint and magnanimity. Jefferson is largely responsible, with Washington, for establishing the vital principle of a peaceful transfer of power. He did exceed his constitutional authority in one regard: in buying the Louisiana Territory, peacefully doubling the US's physical extent. But who, in retrospect, can fault instead of credit him for that?
I think it is unfortunate, and unjust, that Jefferson's reputation is currently in eclipse. He is blamed, firstly, for owning slaves, and, secondly, for supposedly having had a long extramarital affair with his own slave, Sally Hemings. I think the first is a bum rape: the problem was structural. Given that other farmers used slave labour, Jefferson as a farmer could not have refused to do so and remained solvent. It seems to me to matter more that he was politically opposed to slavery. A for the second, it is an unproven allegation, and so no more than salacious calumny. Contrary to common belief, it has not really been confirmed by the DNA evidence. And if it is true, it is a matter that does not reflect on his presidency. Presidents should have the same right to privacy as common citizens.
Another candidate for the best president is Calvin Coolidge. He resisted exercising power when possible, and insisted on leaving after one term. Another admirable example; although this one has not since been followed.
I have a soft spot too for Ulysses S. Grant. He governed at a tough time, during Reconstruction, and it seems his fate to be eternally underestimated. His administration was mired in corruption, but I do not think Grant himself was responsible. On the other hand, he had a record of magnanimity towards the defeated South, and advanced civil rights for both blacks and American Indians. He was a steady and a fair hand when it was desperately needed.
Next, I like Teddy Roosevelt. He was no doubt an activist, which is not in itself a good thing. But far more than for Canadian prime ministers, a large part of the job of a US president is to set the tone of discourse, as head of state. At this, at least, Roosevelt was perhaps the best of all American presidents. He personified the American spirit, and the best of the American spirit, in a way nobody else has done so well before or since.
On the same score, I think John Kennedy ranks high. Like Roosevelt, he projected hope, good nature, a sense of fairness, and optimism. I give him credit for civil rights. I do not blame him for Vietnam. I think Vietnam was down to Eisenhower, who has been generally given too much credit by history. I think Ike was a much worse president than people generally think. Kennedy's rep, like Jefferson's, is in decline because of his personal life. I maintain this is not relevant.
And on the same score, Reagan must rank high. As a national cheerleader and spokesman, he gave Americans hope and optimism.
And there you have it; typically enough for a Canadian, I seem to have much more to say about US presidents than Canadian prime ministers.